Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Murdochs and British politics

Last night, Sky News reported that The Sun will be supporting the Conservative Party at the forthcoming general election. The Sun's political editor said that Labour have failed the country and are letting people down.

My blog on 31 August criticised Rupert Murdoch and his family, especially James Murdoch's MacTaggart Lecture. Rupert Murdoch was a frequent guest of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and current PM Gordon Brown has refused to divulge his own contacts with Murdoch. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, wrote in his diaries that TB said he didn't fear them [the press] coming at him about me, but about the relationship with Murdoch. And he didn't fancy a sustained set of questions about whether Murdoch lobbied him. ('The Blair Years' p.287)

Lance Price, one-time director of communications for the Labour party, wrote I have never met Mr Murdoch, but at times when I worked at Downing Street he seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet. His voice was rarely heard (but, then, the same could have been said of many of the other 23) but his presence was always felt.

After a careful investigation Ofom concluded in June 2009 that Sky has an effective monopoly, which it was using to unfairly pressure other independent media companies such as Virgin. Ofcom believes there is a need for remedial action. The decision was put out for further discussion - the 3 month period recently ended.

As Polly Toynbee noted: Ofcom's boldness drew an amazed intake of breath from industry players and observers. This is the first time a regulator has seriously challenged Murdoch's market power. Those who stood to gain – BT Vision, Virgin Media, Top Up TV and others — were delighted their protests were so bravely answered. .....The battle is on, since historically Murdoch's empire has stooped to manipulating regulators and avoiding taxes. How has he done that? By leaning hard on politicians, who – knowing only too well his dominant voice in newspapers – are frightened for their lives.

A few days after Ofcom's determination that Sky was acting in an anti-competitive & quasi-monopolistic way David Cameron committed his party to clipping Ofcom's wings ... As Toynbee put it: All Tory and Labour leaders canoodle with the Murdoch apparat with a social desperation that demeans them and their office. This political corruption is rather more alarming than duck islands.

Is there any merit in Sky/News Corporation's fightback against Ofcom's conclusion that it has been abusing its position? Sky says that if Ofcom succeeds in imposing wholesale prices which do not fully reflect the risks and costs in their business, the effect is a tax on Sky to subsidise BT and Virgin Media.. but - talking of tax - it's well known that News Corporation has made use of every discredited trick in the book to avoid paying tax. And Sky's competitors believe they have a strong case.

Was there any merit in James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture? A modicum, yes: Ofcom's micro-management of broadcasters is on occasion hard to justify, or just plain wrong. And, yes, the BBC is far from perfect, as readers of this blog well know.

Recently politicians of left and right have been lining up to criticise the BBC Trust, for example Ben Bradshaw's sudden realization that it's wrong for the BBC Trust to be both cheerleader and regulator. In an October 2007 consultation about a revised Complaints Framework, the Trust said (page 67) it "would like to publish as many submissions as possible in order to be as open and transparent as possible." Pity it didn't stick to the promise. No responses from individuals were published.

In my submission to the Trust's consultation on children's services (see blog 16 August 2008) I said explicitly that the Trust acts in cahoots with BBC management, because the way that the consultation had been structured was clearly not at all independently minded. The Trust's consultation, for that reason, was risible.

The fact that Newsround & BBC children's TV generally is in such a parlous state is substantially a result of management's ideologically motivated meddling, not helped by BBC Trust's typically craven attitude towards management (see blog 10 May 2009)

However many the BBC's faults - and there are many - this country needs no lectures from the would-be monopolist Murdoch clan. Robust plurality and diversity should be the way forward. Judging from recent opinion polls there will likely be a Conservative government by next summer. Conservatives would be unwise to make the same mistake as Labour by grovelling to the Murdochs and further debasing UK politics. The omens, however, do not look good.

Valuing respect and diversity (part 3) to follow in a few days

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